Poet Of The Week

Alan Gilbert

     April 22–28, 2019

Alan Gilbert is the author of two books of poetry, The Treatment of Monuments (SplitLevel Texts, 2012) and Late in the Antenna Fields (Futurepoem, 2011), as well as a collection of essays, articles and reviews entitled Another Future: Poetry and Art in a Postmodern Twilight (Wesleyan University Press, 2006). His poems have appeared in the Baffler, the Believer, Boston Review, Chicago Review, Denver Quarterly, Fence, jubilat and the Nation, among other places. His writings on poetry and art have appeared in a variety of publications, including Artforum, Bookforum, Brooklyn Rail, Cabinet, e-flux journal, 4Columns, Hyperallergic and Modern Painters. He is the recipient of a 2009 New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship in poetry and a 2006 Creative Capital Foundation award for innovative literature. He teaches in the Columbia University MFA writing program and is the website editor for BOMB magazine.

Author photo by Nina Subin

I Love a Parade

The orchards come down in a barrage
of shower caps, setting the fireflies free
to extend their brief lifespans.
That’s how I came to be called the Price Chopper,
singing a different kind of tune.
All these letters form a little heap
we’re forced to walk around,
but that doesn’t mean I invented the dance known as
a drink and the two-step.
In fact, I’m mostly bored with cocktails,
even the ones that come with miniature umbrellas
and flaming tiki heads in a tall glass etched
with an image of the sea.
Still, I’ve got the makings of a professional.
I’d collect bird nests except we live
in a desert.
The convention hotel is built on a fault line
running the length of a nearby highway.
We stayed so late the chairs were stacked around us
as our dreams got even weirder.
But that’s much better than having them taken away
while sending stock images through
the ether with a tracking device
weathered for the elements
like a wrinkled tarp, rubber hose, or kitchen sponge
placed to soak up the river’s silted run-off.

Everyone rides the bull these days.
We moved into an apartment complex on the edge of town
that was a favorite of shale field workers.
But the blizzard in October surprised us,
wrapping white grocery bags
around our shoes so that it looked as if
we were standing in the clouds.
I didn’t invent that dance either,
at least according to my handwriting analyst
and the despair that occasionally overtakes me
at the sight of the wrecking ball
and everything I tightly clung to now gone.
Or almost gone. Or eventually will be.
No wonder we decided to eat in today,
though that doesn’t explain what happened
to those meatballs—
except for the pieces of food stuck
between your teeth.
I’m not going to say it won’t occur again,
but I’m guessing it will be different next time,
the talons close to the heart
digging a little less deeply into
the salmon’s flesh lifted from the water.
Another channel features cubic zirconia earrings
on sale until the end of the hour,
after which the programming switches back
to local news and a report
on military homecomings.

—Originally published in the Brooklyn Poets Anthology (Brooklyn Arts Press & Brooklyn Poets, 2017).

Tell us about the making of this poem.

At this point, I tend to write poems with a larger collection in mind, as opposed to writing lots of individual poems and then seeing what I’ve got. So if I’ve recently written a number of longer, denser poems, I might step back and write a shorter, more transparent one. Or if the form of those recent poems has felt a little too clean, I’ll aim for something a bit more ragged. Or maybe I need to continue expanding the diction and range of reference. Maybe I haven’t been vulnerable enough in the work. In any case, “I Love a Parade” looks as if it is probably aiming for a slightly shaggier mode with a desire to write about class and capitalism. It also may have been written in Marfa, Texas, during a Lannan Residency Fellowship, because a number of the poems in the manuscript from which it comes were written there.

What are you working on right now?

I’m usually writing both poetry and prose, and I’m close to finishing a new set of poems while working on a long essay on Tommy Pico’s three poetry books. I just finished a review of an exhibition by the artist Aria Dean, who also happens to be one of my favorite writers on contemporary art and visual culture.

What’s a good day for you?

I tend to go to bed late and wake up late, so my ideal day—which, admittedly, is rare—is not to leave the house and sit at my desk from about noon until 7 PM, and then meet friends or go to an event.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

After graduate school, all I wanted was to be a poet and art writer in New York, and Brooklyn was cheaper. In those days, it wasn’t necessarily the cool place to be. I originally targeted downtown Brooklyn around Atlantic Ave, but through a friend of a friend ended up finding a place in Greenpoint right next to the East River back when it felt like tumbleweeds might roll around the area at night. It was mostly empty warehouses and crumbling docks.

Tell us about your neighborhood. How long did you live there? What did you like about it? How was it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?

I lived in Greenpoint for ten years, Williamsburg for seven, Sunnyside (Queens) for two, and recently I moved next to the Hudson River in lower Westchester. Those three neighborhoods in NYC all changed tremendously in all the obvious ways, and I definitely got gentrified out of Greenpoint. Even Sunnyside started sprouting beards and tattoos and ergonomic baby strollers in the couple years I lived there.

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.

In one apartment I lived in I had an upstairs neighbor who constantly went in and out of the building all day, every hour, never with a bag, or even a jacket when it was warm. He drove away in his nondescript midsize sedan and was back in about ten minutes, usually parking right out front. It didn’t take long for me to figure out he was a drug dealer, and that because he never carried a bag of any sort, he was probably dealing heroin. He was part of an extended family that had lived on the block for decades, and his uncle eventually evicted him for not paying rent. Before he left, he completely tore up his apartment, including flooring and the walls. I went up there to see if it might be usable as an artist studio for a friend of mine, and every crevice was filled with small, empty, plastic heroin bags.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Did you find that here? Why or why not?

A poem is inseparable from the communities, institutions and discourses that receive and shape it, although I guess I would try to distinguish communities from institutions; yet like institutions, communities have their own sets of rules, behaviors, expectations and protocols. Poetry is beautiful for the ways it needs and supports communities; in turn, they’re what give poems agency. But it should also be remembered that communities—even the most inclusive ones—are defined as much by what they exclude as what they embrace.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

Aesop Rock, Timothy Donnelly, Cathy Park Hong, Tracie Morris, Tommy Pico and many more.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

Lorna Dee Cervantes, Ed Dorn, Susan Howe and Anne Waldman each taught me how to blend a devotion to poetry with critical rigor and—most importantly of all—a fearless pursuit of one’s own vision.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

Just this week I was teaching from Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary, and I’m still so impressed by the mix of seriousness and play in that book. In only the first three lines of one short, slippery prose poem she references the Heaven’s Gate UFO death cult, Egyptian mythology, slavery in the United States, the economics of slavery, Afrofuturism, Sun Ra and probably more that I’m not catching. That same day of class included a song from Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein, and the scalpel-like precision of those lyrics/poems—and their range from deeply esoteric to street documentary—continues to excite me.

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

I’ve been trying to read all of Donna Haraway’s Manifestly Haraway, but I find the thinking in that book so generative that my mind is constantly wandering from the page to consider various ideas she proposes. Also, as someone who admires and teaches Gwendolyn Brooks’s poetry, I’ve never read her novel Maud Martha. I should remedy that.

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?

I’m ashamed to admit that I used to be a very rigorous one-book-at-a-time, whole-book kind of reader, but for the past few years, I’m much more of a dipper. When I do pick a book to read seriously, it’s definitely not random. I might prefer physical books, but I’m sure that in the end I read more words online. And when I’m being an intentional reader, I still hand-write notes in a notebook.

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

Short poems written in fragments! Although I seem to be pretty much incapable of it.

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

When I lived in Greenpoint and rode the G train a lot, I was always guaranteed some reading time on the subway (or on the subway platform). Metro North is good for reading now. Otherwise, I don’t really read—or write—with any real seriousness outside of the house. I never have, even in college.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

Acapulco, Beacon’s Closet, Black Rabbit, Bossa Nova Civic Club, Elsewhere, Frank’s Cocktail Lounge, Henry Public, McCarren Park, Metropolitan, Spoonbill & Sugartown, Sprout, Teddy’s, Unnameable Books—because each is local, unique, and fosters community.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate the shopping cart we found overturned in a ditch,
And what I find discarded in it you may find too,
For every SUV that passes me as good passes you.

Why Brooklyn?

Because it has as concentrated a mix of diverse peoples and cultures as anywhere in the United States. It’s too bad the Bloomberg administration tried to eradicate both, with some success.